Online collaborative learning emphasizes student activity and is associated with changes in perceptions of who is responsible for leading groups of learners. It raises questions about the roles of teachers and students as leaders. A teacher may act as the guide or as a member of the group and a co-learner. An important question is whether the success or failure of online collaborative learning depends on the role and skills of a group leader. There is reason to believe that online groups do need guidance, but there is a need to consider the extent to which instructors make students aware of their roles, and the degree to which they are tangibly present in an online environment. A related issue is the skill set of the online leader, variously known as the online moderator, facilitator, coordinator, and so on, depending on his or her role. In actual fact, there may be different ways in which group participants contribute to leadership and numerous ways in which teams of teachers share responsibility for leading online groups. Group leadership should always be considered in the context of a range of factors that impact group dynamics. It is useful to be aware of the different philosophies that underpin online discussion and group working, the tasks in which learners engage, and the skills that instructors and students have or need to develop. Self-direction is a pivotal concept for the consideration of emergent leadership in online groups. Other important issues are leadership styles, social roles, relationships and norms, as well as the tools and media that may play a role in how collaboration is experienced by learners.
Goals And Outcomes Of Collaboration
Much has been written on the subject of collaborative learning, but it is not always clear what types of learning are taking place during or as a result of collaboration. A brief examination of terminology gives some insights. Panitz (1996) has considered the distinction between collaboration and cooperation. Collaboration is a personal “philosophy of interaction”; it suggests ways of dealing with people that respect their abilities and contributions. Collaborative learning has British roots, based on the work of teachers encouraging students to take a more active role in their learning, and ties into the social constructivist movement. There is an underlying premise of consensus building. On the other hand, cooperation, or cooperative learning, is a “set of processes” geared to the accomplishment of specific goals or to developing an end product. It is teacher centered, directed, and controlled. Cooperative learning has largely American roots, going back to John Dewey’s writings on the social nature of learning. This tradition tends to focus on achievement or products of learning. One should also be aware that in the research literature the term “collaborative learning” may be used to describe something that would more accurately be named “cooperative.” Dillenbourg and Schneider (1995) state that under the label “collaborative learning” most research actually focuses on learning through collaborative problem solving.
It is often assumed that students learn effectively through discussion and collaboration. Laurillard (2002) gives some examples of studies that have shown benefits of computer-mediated communication (CMC) to students who have been part of thriving online communities. In addition to a “sense of community,” these have brought opportunities for mutual support, for alternative perspectives and explanations, and to learn from the mistakes and insights of other students. But there are limitations. Although argument among students about a topic can be an extremely effective way of enabling them to find out what they know and do not know, “it does not necessarily lead them to what they are supposed to know” (Laurillard, 2002, p. 158). Laurillard concludes that discussion among students is an excellent partial method of learning, but that students need to be able to consult a tutor.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Critical Thinking: In academic contexts, this phrase usually refers to complex intellectual reasoning that questions assumptions and seeks to assess evidence and examine claims made by others. More simply, it can also refer to logical thinking based on facts and evidence.
Peer Coaching: Students are paired with a classmate or join a small group, with the aim of getting advice and support, and perhaps some instruction, from these fellow learners.
Teaching Presence: The ways in which a teacher is present, or input from a teacher, in terms of the design of online activities, facilitation of online interactions, and direction of learning.
Self-Direction: The ability to carry out a learning activity without being directed or managed by another person, and specifically, a teacher. The term can also refer to the ability to set one’s own learning goals.
Deep Learning: This phrase characterizes an approach to learning, and it is contrasted with “surface” learning. Someone who adopts a deep learning approach may find the subject of study intrinsically motivating or very engaging.
Moderator: A person who manages messages sent to a discussion forum, screening them and deciding whether any of them are inappropriate; also used to describe someone who has the role of directing an online discussion or presiding over a whole course.
Strategic Learners: Learners who adopt a strategic approach to learning are usually primarily interested in the grade or marks that they hope to achieve, and this determines what they focus on and how they study.
Facilitator: A person who acts in such a way as to allow others to take an active role in learning, especially in groups. Teachers in this role typically assist students by asking probing questions and by stimulating discussion.